The life of 50 Thai pickers in Kemijärvi’s Luusua school in Finnish Lapland is clearly defined: picking berries and sleeping, sometimes sacrificing on the sleep component.
Chaliao Tubtim, aged 28, is carrying a bucket of cloudberries with back bent. The yield is to be weighed on the large scales of the Luusua schoolhouse.
The rice farmer from northeastern Thailand is far from home – to put it mildly. Luusua is the backwoods of Kemijärvi, a heath behind swamps and sand roads, and a long way from anywhere.
Today the school in the wilderness is inhabited by some 50 Thai berry-pickers who have been brought to Finland by Korvatunturin Marja, one of the large berry processing companies in Lapland.
A total of approximately 2,500 foreign pickers of wild berries arrived in Lapland at the end of July. Most of them came from Thailand and Ukraine.
Unlike many others, Tubtim has come to Finland for the first time.
”The number of trees is really huge. And the mosquitos are bigger”, he comments on his impressions of Lapland through an interpreter. When talking about mosquitos, Tubtim laughs and beats the air with his hands as if he were in the famous TV advertisement of a Finnish insect repellent.
The scales report that after picking cloudberries for 15 hours, Tubtim has earned around EUR 50 net.
One after another, rather dilapidated vans are gathering in the yard of the red-tiled school as dusk comes on. The text on the side of one van says VR, which is the name of the Finnish rail operator. Tired men in tracksuits are clambering out of the vehicle. One of them still manages to flash a smile.
The entire weighing process is done by the Thais’ own efforts. When all 50 berry-pickers have finally returned to the school, there are 600 kilos of cloudberries in the hall, all clean and ripe.
”Many buyers have asked why they should buy berries from Thai pickers. After seeing the berries they have been surprised”, enthuses Teuvo Alaluusua of Korvatunturin Marja, who is here to give a helping hand.
The berry-pickers sit down to eat pork soup and small roach that they have fished from a lake using a rod and line.
The food is made by a Thai cook whose salary is paid out of the berry-pickers’ earnings – in one way or another. Unlike in Sweden, none of these foreign pickers have any work contract, let alone any minimum salary.
Alaluusua praises the atmosphere at the school he is keeping an eye on. ”I have not witnessed any arguments whatsoever”, he says.
The jovial caretaker does not speak a word of English, let alone Thai. Yet he seems to know the concerns and pleasures of the group.
”That one wearing shorts has been the best picker in many years. His bilberry yield can be up to 100 kilos a day”, Alaluusua notes, pointing at a young man who is laughing in the yard with his mates while eating a bar of Fazer Blue [milk chocolate].
”That other guy looks like he’s having some kind of allergic reaction to something. I need to go to the chemist’s”, Alaluusua adds.
Alaluusua has made friends with Wirat Homkhun, the mechanic of the berry-picking lot. Like many others living at the school, Homkhun has a witty monosyllabic nickname: Kä.
”Kä! Kä! Koti (”Home”). Näytä (”Show”). Koti”, Alaluusua repeats in Finnish.
Homkhun scurries off to get his digital camera. Soon everyone in the canteen is looking at a little photo on the display of a hall without walls far away in Northeastern Thailand.
”Puhu (”Speak”)”, Homkhun now tells Alaluusua to explain.
Alaluusua explains that Homkhun’s dream is a garage of his own. With the first summer’s earnings he could buy a piece of land. In the second summer he earned enough to buy the pillars and roof for the hall. All that Homkhun now needs is walls.
Apparently, the garage is supposed to provide accommodation as well.
”Nukkuu (”sleep”)”, Homkhun says and points at the upper floor of the hall without walls.
In the very early morning, everything starts from the beginning once again. By half past five, even the last van has sped out of the yard.
Flights bought on credit will take Chaliao Tubtim and the others back home to Thailand at the end of September. There will be another 50 mornings such as this one.
The VW bus containing Tubtim’s group of pickers headed out towards the marshlands and the cloudberries at 5:30, as soon as the last remaining member ran up with his lunchbox.
In the swamp, the group of pickers immediately split up in order to map out the places where the greatest number of tell-tale orange tussocks could be found. Shouts in Thai rang out here and there.
They do not hang around: this journalist was left far in their wake.
The pressure to make profit was seen in the swamp: nobody stopped to sit on a tree stump – not even for a moment.
Most berry-pickers bought their flights to Finland on credit before they had any idea of the future berry crop. The total amount of the credit could well be in the region of one year’s income, so they know there is no time to waste.
FACTFILE: Berry-pickers have to pick four buckets per day to break even
Usually a berry-picker stays in Finland for 60 to 70 days and pays the berry entrepreneur rent of about EUR 1,000.
The rental sum includes accommmodation, food, berry-picking tools, the use of a car, and petrol.
However, the berry-picker has to pay for his or her trip. From Thailand the flights and other travel expenses come to something like EUR 1,500.
In order to cover his or her own costs alone, a picker has to pick half a bucket of cloudberries or four buckets of bilberries every day.
If the season is good, the most diligent pickers can expect to take home a year’s income from Lapland. Many of them return to Finland year after year.